Stiller's 'Thunder' Under Fire From Disability Groups

Coalition boycotts 'Tropic Thunder' for film's use of the R-word.


Aug. 12, 2008— -- Ben Stiller's new movie "Tropic Thunder," which he wrote, directed, produced and stars in, is supposed to be a send-up of actors who will go to any lengths to advance their careers.

But a coalition of disabilities groups believes the comic actor went too far with the film's repeated use of what they call the r-word, or "retard," when referring to the character Simple Jack, whom Stiller portrays in a subplot.

The coalition of 22 groups, including the Special Olympics, the Arc of the United States and the National Down Syndrome Congress, launched a nationwide boycott of the film -- which opens for wide release Wednesday -- at Monday's premiere in Los Angeles. Stars Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black walked down a red carpet past dozens of protestors and picket signs that read "Ban the movie, ban the word."

"This population remains the defenseless butt of jokes all throughout media," said Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, who has not yet seen the movie. "We think it's time to end."

Chip Sullivan, a spokesman for DreamWorks, a unit of Paramount that released the film, defended the R-rated comedy in a statement on Sunday, saying that it "satirizes Hollywood and its excesses, and makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the top characters in ridiculous situations."

He added, "The film is in no way meant to disparage or harm the image of individuals with disabilities."

"I think it's open to interpretation and that's the great thing," Robert Downey Jr., who stars in the film, told APTN at the Monday night premiere. "You know, if I want to protest something because it offends me that's my right as an American, and it's also any artist's right to say and do whatever they wanna do."

The Simple Jack character is part of a film within a film. Stiller's character Speedman, an aging action movie star, chases after an Oscar by portraying a dim farmhand, complete with bowl haircut and bucked teeth, who stutters and talks to farm animals.

Although the studio has held 250 screenings of the film since April, objections to Simple Jack first surfaced about a week ago on writer Patricia Bauer's blog about disability issues. Bauer posted a studio promotional image that highlighted Simple Jack and carried the slogan "Once Upon a Time There Was a Retard," and invited readers to comment.

As soon as the studio got wind of concerns being raised, it ditched Simple Jack marketing materials and a mock promotional Web site called

Last Wednesday, Shriver and representatives of other disability advocacy groups met in person and by phone with Stacey Snider, DreamWorks chief executive, and presented a list of demands, including asking filmmakers to cut any "retard" references or jokes. DreamWorks left the film as is.

In his statement, Sullivan said, "we have had productive discussions with representatives of disability advocacy organizations, and look forward to working with them closely in the future. However, no changes or cuts to the film will be made."

The studio arranged screenings around the country for disability advocates yesterday and last Friday. "I came out of it feeling like I had been assaulted," said David Tolleson, executive director of the Down syndrome group, who saw it last week. "I counted 16 uses of retard, not counting imbecile, moron and idiot."

Many of those uses come in a scene where Downey, whose character Lazarus explains to Stiller's Speedman that his film "Simple Jack" bombed because he did the "full retard" as opposed to the "half retard" that Dustin Hoffman did in "Rain Man."

Tolleson says that, even in the context of the film, which is an "equal opportunity offender," he did not find the scene humorous. He added that there was no counter to the Simple Jack character as there was to Downey's character, who wears blackface throughout the film and is called on his stereotyping by a real black actor.

Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the screenings, an ad hoc coalition of more than a dozen disabilities groups held a conference call on the weekend to lay the groundwork for at least one protest in every state starting this week.

Film critic Peter Travers can understand how groups advocating for disabled people might be sensitive to their portrayal, but in this film, he said they are not the ones being spoofed. "It's egomaniac Hollywood actors, who know that, in order to please the Academy, they need to exaggerate every quality they can think of. It's a gigantic slap in the face, although a hysterical one, at Hollywood."

But Tolleson rejects the notion that disability advocates missed the joke. "We have a sense of humor," he said. "But just as it is with every other group, there are lines that shouldn't be crossed."

Shriver worries that viewers will see the film as an opening to humiliate and harass the intellectually challenged. Already, T-shirts that say "Don't Go Full Retard" are popping up for sale on the Web. Shriver said the studio has said it will pursue legal action to stop the sale.

Other films have mined people with disabilities for laughs, most notably the Farrelly brothers, who made "Something About Mary" and "The Ringer," in which "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville pretends to be intellectually challenged so he can compete at the Special Olympics.

But Shriver, who was a consultant for "The Ringer," said that film tried to educate audiences "through humor about the giftedness of people with special needs." "Tropic Thunder," he said, "tries to humiliate actors by linking them to people with special needs."

One good thing that may come out of this film, Shriver believes, is the joining together of all these different disability groups for the first time. He believes this could represent a significant turning point in the fight for disability rights.

"Families have felt increasingly empowered and they have had enough," he said. "That hits square down the bull's-eye of this film coming out."

Tolleson added, "Rather than legislative change, we're talking about cultural change. That is harder. You can legislate changes, but until you make cultural changes, the job is not complete."

Associated Press contributed to this report

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